Monday, November 30, 2009

Pies, pies, pies, and more

Every year Old Bethpage Village celebrates Thanksgiving with two weekends of cooking. We do our best to make Sarah Josepha Hale proud. For me this usually means two days in an 1866 house with a cook stove and two days in a 1861 (1820-ish restored to 1861) house with a large hearth. Officially, that means two turkeys and two batches if succotash, unofficially it means turkey, succotash, and anything else that inspired us. For whatever reason pies seemed to be the thing for me this year.

I started with a potato pie. Think escalloped potatoes with a pastry lid. Before we had casserole dishes with nice glass lids pastry seems to have served that purpose. Layers of sliced potatoes with minced onion, some salt, a little water, butter and nutmeg. The nutmeg is the surprise, and it was a very nice surprise. The basic receipt shows up in virtually every cookbook I looked at from the earliest to well after the Civil War. Some suggested adding meat in between the layers and others seasoned it with various sauces and ketchups. Just one version, from Godey's in 1856,

Pie number two was turkey. We do a lot with leftovers. As mundane as leftovers seem the visitors ask many questions about it. Most any cookbook discusses mincing up leftover meats and mixing it with leftover vegetables. Depending on what you have it can turn into a hash or be mixed with some gravy for a pie or pasties. I went for a pie - we're a bit crunched for space and don't have a cutting board large enough for rolling pastry so the less I have to handle dough the better. My pie was simple - leftover turkey, potatoes, carrots, and onions all mixed with some gravy and stock to loosen it up a bit. And a little pepper for good measure. Various receipts suggest adding forcemeat balls or slices of hard cooked egg. I stuck with simple. Many meat pies had only side and top crusts, or some just the top - again a lid. Meat pies with a raised crust usually used a lard crust but I found a few references to using puff pastry for top only pies and I went with that. Once the crusts on these pies cooks it can actually be lifted off - intact. That lets the cook add more gravy or seasoning or even to pour out the gravy so they could keep the pie for a few days without it getting too soggy. Several visitors thought this pie was a fake - a plastic prop, I'm still trying to decided if the was a compliment or an insult!

Puff paste in all of its many-splendored layers. This makes a very delicate but very sturdy crust. And, it's easy to handle!

The third pie was Catherin Beecher's "Little Girl's Pie",, an apple pie with much molasses. Several variations showed up through the years. Molasses is a bit of an acquired taste that the modern palate might not be accustomed to. Beecher's receipt started with a spiced and sugar sweetened pie and added molasses, I picked this one not just because it was the first of the genre I found but because I thought it might be better for our modern taste buds. I had a mixed bag of apples, quite literally. Some probably weren't as strongly flavored as they should be to stand up to molasses but the mix worked well. I added sugar (a bit much for my tastes as I was distracted speaking to some visitors while I added it), cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. I used a rich crust so I dispensed with the butter so often added to a  pie. Usually I bake single crust pies in a dutch oven, I've never thought it through, it just seemed to happen that way. Single crusts work better. A pie crust needs to bake not steam and with an apple pie steam it did! Getting the crust to cook well was a challenge. It came out of the oven just over an hour before closing so it was still pretty warm when the tasting commenced. Evidently we all like molasses, everyone who tried it came back for more. It is more rich than a typical apple pie so some people might like smaller pieces, I'm thinking it would also be really nice with a bit of good vanilla ice cream - not quite an 1860's tradition but it sounds good!

Did we live on just pies, turkey and succotash - oh no! There was cake, turkey soup, vegetable soup, rolls from a rice bread dough, plum pudding, boiled indian pudding, apple fritters...and much more I'm forgetting. Definitely a spread that someone might travel over the mountain and through the woods to feast upon.

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